Saint Leopold Mandic: Apostle of the Confessional

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Saint Leopold Mandic’s ‘mission land’ for almost forty years was a small cell in which he attended to sinners who came seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Newsroom (31/07/2021 07:00, Gaudium Press) It was 14 May, 1944. Europe was in the midst of war and Italy, an ally of Germany, was suffering the consequences of its involvement in the conflict. Padua had been chosen as a target for enemy aircraft and bombs rained down, devastating the city. The Capuchin church was hit hard, as was a large part of the convent.

Once the attack had ended and the smoke cleared, the tragic extent of the destruction appeared before everyone’s eyes. But something was striking: a small part of the monastery remained intact in the ruins. The destructive fury of the bombing had miraculously respected only one room and one statue of Our Lady of Grace.

Twelve years earlier, on 23 March, 1932, a friar of that same monastery named Br. Leopold had predicted that Italy would be engulfed in a sea of fire and blood. When war broke out, he was asked whether Padua would be bombed. His answer was clear: “It will be, and hard. The convent and the church will also be hit, but not this little cell, no, not this one! Here God has shown such mercy to souls that it must remain a monument of his goodness!”

And the place that remained intact during the bombing was precisely the cell-confessional of Br. Leopold Mandic – where for almost forty years, from ten to twelve hours a day, he heard the confessions of thousands and thousands of repentant souls.

Dalmatia: land of Christian traditions

Like Saint Jerome, Br. Leopold was a Dalmatian. He was born on 12 May, 1866 in the small town of Castelnovo, located in the beautiful Bay of Cathar. Although the region of Dalmatia is now part of Croatia, it yet retains part of the history of the days when it hosted the holiday palaces of the Roman emperors, attracted to it by the irresistible charms of its coastline. Indeed, from those remote times to the present day, the proximity of the Italian Peninsula has provided an uninterrupted cultural exchange.

Because of these influences, Friar Leopold’s family was profoundly Catholic. His parents, Pedro Mandic and Carolina Zarevic, descended from the ancient local nobility, and cultivated traditions bequeathed by their elders: the fruit of a past rich in service to the nation and the Church. This indelibly marked the soul of the future priest.

Of the couple’s twelve children, he was the youngest and also the least robust. His stature, less than the average man of his country, nevertheless concealed the soul of a giant; he was the kind of man who, the more one got to know him, the larger he appeared to be. He had a tremendous union with and devotion to God, affirming his baptismal name: Bogdan, which means Adeodato, “given to God”.

“I cannot weep; I am going to the house of the Lord”.

His childhood and adolescence were marked by admirable clairvoyance of spirit, directly related to the vigour of faith he possessed from an early age.

A boy with an acute analytical sense, he was shocked by the clashes arising from hatred between races and religions, caused in Croatia by consecutive years of war and foreign occupation. As time went by, the young Bogdan penetrated to the root of those discords, understanding how men, when they turn away from God, surrender to their evil inclinations. He also discerned very clearly how the Catholic Church could be a powerful instrument of peace at that time.

His first decisions in life were consistent with the interior light that God had given him. Without hesitation he embraced the Franciscan vocation, in its Capuchin branch, at the age of 16. From the beginning he had a strong desire to dedicate himself to the missions in the Balkans, in order to bring back to the bosom of the Church those who had been separated from it.

Appointed by his superiors to do his novitiate in Italy, he could not hide his joy from his relatives when they came to bid him farewell in tears. When asked about his leaving at such a difficult time, he replied with a smile: “I cannot cry, I am going to the house of the Lord. How am I supposed to cry?”

God calls him to be a missionary

The winter months were approaching in the Capuchin seminary of Udine when Bogdan arrived in November of 1882. There the novice applied himself to his studies and made rapid progress, but above all he gave good example.

In 1884 he was transferred to Bassano del Grappa, where he received the habit of the order under the name of Brother. He suffered much because of his weak physical condition and the rigours of the Capuchin novitiate, but he faced everything with heroism, his soul always fixed on the ideal of the missions. He professed his vows the following year and resumed his studies in Padua, where he studied philosophy, and then went to Venice to study theology.

In June of 1887, while still a student at Padua, he clearly heard in the depths of his soul the voice of Our Lord inviting him to be a missionary among the Orthodox, to lead them back to the Holy Church. The date was so impressed upon him that half a century later he wrote: “This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the first time I heard the voice of God calling me to pray for and promote the return of the Eastern dissidents to Catholic unity”.3

To better understand this mission, he vowed to carry it out. He studied the Balkan languages with great zeal and was confident of converting those peoples, above all through the devotion to Our Lady, which he intended to spread through the written and spoken word.

As soon as he received priestly ordination, in Venice on 20 September 1890, he asked permission to leave and set out on his mission. But this was denied him because of his precarious state of health.

Unexpected mission land and battlefield

God has mysterious designs for his Saints! Leopold was never able to travel to the Balkans, as he had so longed to do. The true contours of his mission were gradually taking shape before his eyes: Providence wanted him to sacrifice himself for those people separated from the Church, a suffering of an inner martyrdom as an expiatory victim.

The confessional was his principal means of carrying out this offering: every day he spent more than ten hours in the confessional, sometimes even twelve, caring for souls whom he consoled, guided and ministered to in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He never failed to show himself solicitous with those who came to him, even in the cases of impertinent people or when the hour was late. The small space of his cell-confessional became for him a real battlefield. He often said: “I must do everything for the good of souls- everything, really everything! I want to and I must die fighting”.4

Leopold would reveal to a Capuchin lay brother an enlightening fact that occurred early in his vocation: one day, a devout person who had received Holy Communion from Fr. Leopold confided to him: “Father, Jesus told me to tell you that every soul you assist in confession here is your East”.5

Although he was never able to be a missionary in the Balkans, he exercised a fruitful apostolic activity without ever losing sight of that great horizon. In September 1914 he wrote this testimony: “The end of my life must be to seek the return of the Eastern dissidents to Catholic unity; that is, I must direct all the actions of my life before God, in the faith and charity of Our Lord – the propitiatory Victim for the sins of the world – as far as my insignificance, my life, is concerned.”

Gifts of an excellent confessor

Physically frail, small of stature, with a weak voice, Br. Leopold had nothing that could attract people from a natural point of view. Nevertheless, his simple words, imbued with love of God and neighbour, penetrated hearts and transformed them.

He possessed to such a high degree the gift of wisdom and counsel that people from all social classes came to ask for his guidance. Even high ecclesiastical dignitaries consulted him on the intricate problems of their dioceses or functions.

Leopold also received from God the gift of discerning hearts, as witnessed, for example, by Mr. Jose Bolzonella of Padua, who often went to Leopold to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. One morning, when he knelt in the confessional, the Capuchin told Mr. Bolzonella the details of his sins. Seeing his penitent deeply moved, the priest concluded by a kind look and the words: “Don’t worry! Don’t worry, and don’t think about it again.”

The holy confessor showed particular zeal in bringing back to the right path penitents who accused themselves in a superficial manner of sins against purity, without showing serious repentance, especially when it was a question of public acts. He reacted with severity, aiming to move them to contrition and awaken them from their lethargy. This kind of sin caused him real horror, because he lived a perfectly chaste life. He even said, in his old age, that he felt he still had the soul of a child, suggesting that he had preserved his baptismal innocence intact.

His dealings with souls were marked by extreme kindness. When anyone showed surprise at such kindness, he always pointed to the Crucifix, saying that it was Jesus who had taught him and given him the example.

Shortly before his death, he declared that he had been hearing confessions for more than fifty years and did not feel remorse for having almost always absolved the penitent, but rather regret for the few occasions on which he had been unable to do so; and he examined himself rigorously to see if, in those cases, he had done everything in his power so that those souls might be touched by the grace of repentance.

However, when necessary, Fr. Leopold could manifest a fortitude capable of winning the hardest of hearts. One day, an inveterate sinner stood before him, making excuses to justify his sins. Leopold tried with great charity to dissuade him from his bad attitude., but when he realized that all his arguments were useless, he stood up with his face aflame with holy indignation and pointed to the door, saying in a severe tone: “Look, there’s no fooling around with God; go and die in your sin!”8 As if struck by lightning, the sinner fell on his knees at the priest’s feet, and overcome with tears, asked pardon, promising to renounce his false principles entirely. The holy priest embraced him, mingling his tears with the man’s, and moved to see the action of grace, said to him, “Now we are brothers!”

He asked for the grace to die fighting

Enraptured love for the Cross marked the life of Father Leopold. Besides his heroic commitment to hearing daily confessions, he was constantly struggling with his strong and impetuous temperament. He also suffered physical pains: gastric pains, ophthalmia and deforming arthritis. After the celebration of his golden jubilee as a priest in 1940, his health took a turn for the worse. A brief improvement allowed him to return to the “battlefield”, but shortly afterwards he was diagnosed with the illness that was to lead to his death: a malignant tumour in his oesophagus. The illness progressed to the point where he was unable to swallow any food, with the exception of the Holy Species, a singular grace which caused him immense joy.

Seeing his final hour approaching, Fr. Leopold asked for the grace to die fighting, and he obtained it. On July 30, 1942, he rose at half past five in the morning and went to the infirmary chapel. The day before, despite his precarious state, he had heard several confessions. After an hour of prayer, he was walking towards the Sacristy to prepare to celebrate Mass, when he suddenly fell to the ground. Taken to bed, he received the Anointing of the Sick while still lucid. The Superior of the friary recited the Hail Mary three times and then the Salve Regina. The holy friar repeated the words in a weaker and weaker voice. When he finished saying: “O clement, O pious, O sweet Virgin Mary”, his soul flew to Heaven.

The good shepherd offers his life for his sheep

The news of his death spread rapidly through the town and surrounding villages. Crowds paraded in front of his body and a popular cry rose as one voice: “A Saint is dead!”9 The next day, an immense triumphal procession led him to the cemetery, along rows of people kneeling and throwing flowers on the coffin.

Leopold was transferred to a small chapel built beside his cell-confessional. Pope Paul VI proclaimed him Blessed in 1976, and John Paul II canonized him in 1983, during the World Synod of Bishops on the Sacrament of Penance, the very Sacrament the Capuchin saint loved so much.

The Pope’s words on that occasion were very significant and sum up the life of heroic virtue of Saint Leopold: “For all those who knew him, he was no more than a poor, small, sickly friar. His greatness lies elsewhere: in offering himself as a sacrifice, in giving himself, day after day, for the whole of his priestly life: that is for 52 years, in silence, discretion, in the humility of a small cell-confessional: ‘The good shepherd offers his life for the sheep'”.

By Father Edwaldo Marques, EP

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

1 BERNARDI, P.E. Leopoldo Mandi? – Saint of Reconciliation. 7.ed. Padova: Violato, 2004, p.49-50.
2 Idem, p.9.
3 Idem, p.62.
4 Idem, p.37.
5 VALDIPORRO, OFM Cap., Pedro de. Don’t you know me? – Leopold, Capuchin. 4 Ed. São Paulo:
Paulines, 1958, p.56.
6 Idem, p.55.
7 Idem, p.145.
8 BERNARDI, op. cit.
9 Idem, p.82.
10 JOHN PAUL II. Homily at the Mass of canonization of St. Leopold Mandic, on 16/10/1983. In: L’Osservatore Romano. Vatican City, 17-18 October 1983, p. 4.

Text extracted from the Magazine Heralds of the Gospel, July 2010.

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